- Zhang Xiaogang born 1958
- Oil paint, cloth and playing cards on canvas
- Support: 1305 × 975 mm
- Presented by the artist 2019, accessioned 2021
New Year’s Eve 1990 is a highly stylised figurative portrait of a gaunt man with vividly yellow skin and large, haunting eyes. Dressed in black, the subject is shown seated at a table with his right hand raised to his lower chest. Upon the table lie several seemingly portentous objects – a red candle, two playing cards showing the nine of hearts and the nine of spades, and a dagger whose sharp blade points towards the figure. The work is primarily executed in oil paint on canvas, with a layer of wrinkled cloth affixed horizontally across the top section of the canvas. The playing cards are also found objects which have been collaged to the surface. The backdrop for the entire scene is a swathe of dark grey, punctuated by a stripe of bright red at the very top of the composition above the piece of material.
Zhang has acknowledged the influence upon this work of two specific paintings by the preeminent court painter of the Spanish Renaissance, El Greco (1541–1641): The Burial of Count Orgaz 1586 and Nobleman with his Hand on his Chest c.1580, in the collections of the Church of Santo Tomé in Toledo and the Prado Museum in Madrid respectively. Both works present sombre male figures with elongated faces, enveloped in black clothing. Zhang’s anonymous figure holds the same dignified pose with his right hand to his abdomen as El Greco’s nobleman. El Greco has historically been upheld as an artist whose work heralded a more introspective and psychological approach to portraiture and human representation, and it is this quality that Zhang appears to evoke in his own work. In not identifying the sitter or the symbolism of any aspects of the painting’s composition, including the significance of the cards’ suits, the artist has further imbued it with a feeling of mystery.
The painting’s creation can be pinpointed to midnight between the dates of 31 December 1989 and 1 January 1990, or ‘New Year’s Eve’ in the convention of the Gregorian calendar – rather than the more regionally significant national holiday of Chinese New Year that follows the lunisolar calendar. The artist has stated that he spent the evening in solitude, painting and reflecting upon the seismic events of the year in China, in which the Tiananmen Square Massacre of 4 June 1989 resulted in the deaths of thousands of protestors. The work reflects the despair felt by the artist and his contemporaries after burgeoning cultural freedoms were curtailed by the severe media and cultural repressions imposed by the government in the wake of the Tiananmen Square Massacre.
Zhang Xiaogang is one of the most prominent Chinese artists who came to international attention in the 1990s. Much of his work is emblematic of ‘cynical realism’, a term coined by the art critic Li Xianting to describe a style of art in China which satirised the propagandistic imagery that constituted the dominant visual language of the Cultural Revolution (1966–76). Aside from the significance of its date, the painting New Year’s Eve is notable in representing a watershed moment in the artist’s output, moving from the condensed compositions of his surrealistic works of the 1980s that depict disembodied heads and transmogrified figures, to his Bloodlines series (1993–2003), typified by soft-edged figures in arrangements reminiscent of family photographs from the time of the Cultural Revolution. Zhang has described the transformation in his work between 1989 and 1991 as a ‘return to the human world’ (quoted in Fineberg and Xu 2015), acknowledging the disengagement of his previous bodies of work from the political realities of contemporary society.
New Year’s Eve has been included in a number of significant monographic and group exhibitions, including Zhang Xiaogang: Shadows in the Soul at the Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane in 2009; Zhang Xiaogang: Memory + ing at the Daegu Art Museum, South Korea in 2014; and Art and China after 1989: Theater of the World at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Gallery, New York in 2017.
Jonathan Fineberg and Gary G. Xu, Zhang Xiaogang: Disquieting Memories, London 2015, pp.59–62, reproduced p.61.
Art and China After 1989: Theater of the World, exhibition catalogue, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York 2017, p.134, reproduced p.135.
Does this text contain inaccurate information or language that you feel we should improve or change? We would like to hear from you.